13 February 1995

Corruption Through Aestheticism

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the story of

moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel, the

well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian

Gray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical

Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which dreadfully affects his
life forever. "If it were I who was to be always young, and the
picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything!
Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would
give my soul for that" (Wilde 109). As it turns out, the devil
that Dorian sells his soul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not
only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within
him (Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality
which he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry.
Dorian's unethical devotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.
The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which
negatively impacts the main characters. Each of the three primary
characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible personal
doom. Basil Hallward's aestheticism is manifested in his
dedication to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside
world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul, when he finds
this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109).

He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the
explanation that, "I have put too much of myself into it" (Wilde
106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this
philosophy by later stating that, "only the artist is truly
reveled" (109).
Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, "An artist
should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own
life into them" (Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil
Hallward's existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become
one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which
Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea
that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this
belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist
is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art
that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall
(Juan 64).
Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential man in Dorian's life,
is an aesthete of the mind. Basil is an artist who uses a brush
while Wotton is an artist who uses words:
There is no good, no evil, no morality and immorality;there
are modes of being. To live is to experiment aesthetically in
living to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, and
to think all thoughts, in order that the self's every capacity
may be imaginatively realized (West 5811).

Lord Henry believes that, "it is better to be beautiful than
to be good" (Wilde 215). Although he attests that aestheticism is
a mode of thought, he does not act on his beliefs. Basil Hallward
accuses him saying, "You never say a moral thing and you never do
a wrong
thing" (5). However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action of
influencing Dorian.
Although Lord Henry states that, "all influence is immoral"
(Wilde 18), he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray. As
Dorian acts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait's beauty
becomes corrupted. "Lord Henry presents Dorian with the tenants of
his New Hedonism, whose basis is self-development leading to the
perfect realization of one's nature" (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry's
aesthetic ideas have validity ,Dorian Gray's portrait should not
become ugly, but rather more beautiful. Since the picture becomes
loathsome, it is evident that Lord Henry's beliefs are untrue (West
5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horrible portrait that
he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces his own heart.
Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he
is partly the cause of the death of Dorian (5810).
While Lord Henry is indirectly the cause of Dorian's death, he
too causes his own downfall. Lord Henry changes Dorian with the
belief that morals have no legitimate place in life. He gives
Dorian a book about a man who seeks beauty in evil